A Sermon for The 3rd Sunday of Epiphany

A Sermon for The 3rd Sunday of Epiphany: 24th January 2016

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

1 Corinthians 12:12-31


As some of you will know, Alison Wintgens has a great line for people who come to St Mary’s for the first time. It’s become something of a standing joke among the Staff Team. What usually happens is that someone comes into the church, is stunned by its beauty and surprising Georgian perfection and says, “What a lovely Church!” Alison, who has heard this so many times, now says in response, “Yes, and the building is nice too.”

It’s a common truism of Christian theology and preaching that we remind ourselves that the place where we worship is not the Church. Alison is right. This stunning building is a structure in which the Church gathers for seeking comfort, asking forgiveness, seeking strength, praying for renewal and looking for guidance and inspiration to become more fully what the Church is – the body of Christ.

That’s the image Paul uses in today’s epistle, something repeated in our liturgy regularly. The Church – us – we are “the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We remember, too, that the clergy and the Church Council are not the Church. We remember that Junior Church leaders and the choir are not the Church. Our staff team of authorised and employed ministers are not the Church. Study group leaders, bell-ringers, communion assistants, those who lead prayers are not the Church. No one person, no one group, no one activity can become the Church for us. The Church is the body of Christ.

The Church is not something to belong to. Sometimes we talk as if it is. We speak as though joining is like joining the Rotary Club or a Parent Teacher Association, or the Scouts or Brownies. When you chose to belong to a club or a group, you often pay subscriptions, attend meetings when we are able, and hand back membership cards when we grow tired of the organization’s activities or become angry at what it does or the changes it makes. The Church, committed to God in Jesus, is very different, of course. It is – we are – the body of Christ.

Church isn’t something to watch on television as interested spectators. For us, the Church is participatory. We are, in our identity as baptised people, partakers and contributors. We are not like the audience at a concert, we are like members of the orchestra making the music – God’s music sounding through our daily lives, guided by the values of Jesus, which he announced in our Gospel reading today.

We are the body of Christ, and each of us individually is a member of it. But we are not individuals outside the body looking in – we are an integral part of it, each one of us. For those of us who are Western in our faith and tradition, there’s a certain tension between our individualism and our desire to consume the world around us, and the values of the Christian church as a body. Because we are not, we cannot truly be, Christians alone; we are not separate actors choosing our own views without reference to the faith. Christianity is a revealed faith, not a pick-and-mix one. That’s why – usually – the sermon is followed by the creed. I once served in a parish where we didn’t say the creed very often but I always knew when my vicar wasn’t happy with something I said in my sermon. Because he would then say, let us stand and say the creed, “We believe…”

Always, we are together – parts of the whole. We share faith, we share common belief and we are a universal family. Our congregations, the Church, are part of the body of Christ.

St. Paul drives home this point as he expands his view of the body of Christ by using the image of a human body. He enlightens us with telling examples of its parts – hand, ear, eye, nose, feet, and head. Each has its special function. As we consider what we are as the Church, we do well to remember this. As different parts of a human body make their contributions, each of us will have a particular contribution to the Church, finding a ministry that suits us and complements the others.

But that ministry goes far beyond what we contribute to St Mary’s. In fact, it is better to start by thinking about our lives beyond our service here. We are the Body in our homes, our workplaces and when out with our friends. We need to take the expansive view: our membership of the body and our contribution starts beyond the confines of the congregation as we all apply our gifts and talents to make the work of Christ effective in our daily lives for the sake of all around us.

But, we dare not forget to balance these individual roles following another aspect of St. Paul’s analogy. It takes all parts of a human body working together to produce the functioning of a healthy one. We must work together, recognizing the equal importance of all ministries and all members and all people. St. Paul illustrates this in language we can never forget. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” Each, he insists, is equally indispensable. All of us, doing our parts, are indispensable.

And, we must also expand this view beyond the confines of the Church. In the world we live in, which so often seem broken, dangerous and desperate, conflict and contention and extremism and lack of charity seems to have become the rule instead of the exception. Far too often, people are asked to choose and take sides, to ascribe to an “us versus them” mentality, and to draw lines in the sand. How can we take Paul’s wisdom that no one can say “I have no need of you” and extend it to all people and all places to make this sense of Christ-like unity understood and accepted?

Last week, we were treated to an example of what that might mean by the Primates of the Anglican Communion. If you were to trust the media reports or the outrage on a number of sides, you would think that the leaders of the Communion had done something reactionary and punitive, especially to those in the global communion who want to see lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people rightly honoured in the Body of Christ. Many of us here – perhaps not all, I’m sure – would want to ensure that was done and seen to be done.

But that really wasn’t what this meeting was about. Faced with a Communion which stretches across the globe and has vastly different priorities depending on where our fellow-Anglicans meet and worship – challenges of climate change, religious persecution, refugees and warfare – the Primates met to discuss whether they could carry on working together faced with deep and profound divisions about human sexuality and the place of LGBT people in the ordained ministry. There was – and in truth remains – a genuine risk that the fabric of the unity of the Anglican Communion could be torn apart by this issue. Faced with that, what could these forty or so leaders do?

In the end, they began to see themselves again – tentatively as “us” and not as “us and them”. So the Primate of the (pro LGBT) Province of New Zealand said this, “We faced a simple choice: to stay inside the room and work with these enormous differences of view – or to walk away from each other. We chose to stay. We were invited to place ourselves in the shoes of the other. We did so imperfectly, hesitantly. The listening was intense. Exhausting. Hour after hour, day after long day…As we listened so long and so hard, we found our understanding deepen, and our own categories and assumptions challenged…In the end, on the issue which was to split us, we stayed together. And we recommitted ourselves to meeting, regularly, so that we might continue to build trust and understanding.

And the Primate of the (conservative) Province of Egypt and the Middle East said this,

“The turning point of the discussions came when Archbishop Winston Halapua of Polynesia asked the question, “how can we bless each other even if we walk in different directions?”… we started to discuss other issues. The spirit in the room had changed 180 degrees. It was amazing and tremendously encouraging to hear the passionate discussion about mission and evangelism, the challenge of refugees, religiously motivated violence, and environmental issues. It was a real joy for me to witness the different Primates sharing on how the Lord is at work in their provinces and how their churches are growing. I felt that this is the Anglican Communion I love.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury sums up what “one body” means when Christians have divisions. Justin said this during the week, “Because of that, the unity that was so remarkably shown by the Anglican Primates in Canterbury last week is always costly. It is always painful. It feels very fragile. We are a global family of churches in 165 countries, speaking over a thousand languages and living in hundreds of different cultures – how could we not wound each other as we seek to hold together amidst great diversity? But that unity is also joyful and astonishing, renewing and nourishing – because it is unity in love for Jesus Christ, whose single family we are, often argumentative, sometimes cruel (which is deeply wrong) but created by God and belonging to each other irrevocably.

As the body of Christ, we are the activity and the continuing presence of Jesus in the world. We become the Resurrection. The Church is the means by which Christ remains involved in the world. So, we, his body, are Christ’s representatives on earth. Our fearful and anxious world, a world filled with far too many people who are hungry and oppressed, wounded and hopeless, await the demonstration of God’s commitment to them, which comes through the passionate involvement and loving presence of the Church – from us. We are the body of Christ.